Updated: Dec 4, 2020
by Scott Roos
This Christmas is the simple, straight forward title of Jeffery Straker’s latest EP released on November 13th. Straker was able to give NSMZ a rundown of each of the three tracks. Appropriately festive with his two original songs (“Come Walking In The Snow With Me” and “I’ll Be Missing You This Christmas”) and innovative but reverent with the the classic “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”, Straker has once again proven that, when it comes to all things Christmas, he’s the right guy for the job.
Sonically, This Christmas tips its cap in a more “classic country” direction. It’s sort of a Lightfoot, meets Denver with a splash of Anne Murray and perhaps even Cockburn for good measure. The Bruce Hornsby imprint on Straker’s overall sound is also always evident. It’s hard to distill Straker's sound in any other way but to say its “Canadian” and "Prairies". Straker is the consummate, polite, charming, friendly, very welcoming performer but that is definitely what works for him and he's garnered a lot of critical acclaim as a direct result. Straker talked at great length about each of the tracks on This Christmas starting with the opener, the classic "I'll Be Home For Christmas". It's a tune that Straker was convinced to record based on audience requests and also their overall reactions to it when he was on his "Very Prairie Christmas" tour last year.
“The risk in doing a song like 'I'll Be Home For Christmas' is everyone and their dog has kinda done it so you kinda gotta do it different,” explains Straker, “so when I did it we sort of emphasized the banjo in the recording taking it to an almost little bit 'Rainbow Connection-ish' direction with its sort of 6/8, lilting feel because I wanted it to feel like a fireside with the banjo sort of thing so hopefully we kinda got there.”
On the flipside the next track, “Come Walking in the Snow With Me”, is a more upbeat affair. The best way to describe its overall vibe is “cute”. To be honest, Christmas songs don’t really need to be much more than that and this track is a family friendly song designed to bring out all the holiday and winter feels.
“‘Come Walking In the Snow With Me’ came to me eight months ago as I travelled between Saskatchewan and Toronto. I was literally on a plane that was very empty and the lyrics came to me and I started writing,” explains Straker, “But when I sat down to write the music. When I got to my place in Regina at my piano I wanted it to be in the direction of an old country song because growing up on the farm that’s what we listened to a lot of. The song is so simple in its message but so are most of the classic Christmas songs. They’re not about anything profound really. They’re about a single subject and it’s sort of very clearly described. The instrumentation is kinda like one of those old country songs in a way. It’s fun, up tempo and kinda light.”
When it comes to Straker’s own process, he tends to find inspiration when he’s on the move. If you’ve ever met him you’d understand why. Straker’s mind is always working. He’s filled with vim and vigor as all higher level artsy minds will be. The physical motion that provides his creative spark likely gives him the physical activity he needs to slow down and focus his thoughts so he can zero in on the task at hand.
“The place I write music can be varied but there is a line of consistency. I find that I’ll get unstoppable inspiration when I’m in motion. It sounds bizarre and I have no idea why this works,” says Straker, “For example, I’m a runner. So if I go running, and music can be playing in my headphones or not, about a kilometre in I have stuff start to flood my head. So then with the airplane, if I’m sitting there, headphones on or headphones off it doesn’t matter, head back on the headrest, if I just give it a moment, things just start to literally litter my brain. I’ve written a lot of songs on airplanes.”
The final track on This Christmas is a touching tribute to his mother who passed away in February of 2019. Perspective can be hard when you live life in the moment. “I’ll Be Missing You This Christmas” is Straker’s epiphany about how much Christmas must have meant to his mother. It’s gut wrenchingly sentimental but it adds emotional depth to this set of tracks.
“My Mom passed away in February of 2019 really suddenly and unexpectedly. It was obviously horrible. And I was obviously unable to do anything by way of writing a Christmas song to do with that last year. So this song after having a time to let these things process, percolate and all those things they do, this came out of me and really it’s just a song about the thoughts of past Christmases and how important mom was to those,” says Straker, “Thinking back I realized how important Christmas also was to her. At the time I didn’t see this but in retrospect it was her favourite time because all her kids were home. And there we were and it was just sort of this beautiful thing and I can see it in my mind’s eye. These moments were just incredible for her. The song talks about that and the song takes place at the piano because one thing we would do is we would sing around the piano and she was always a part of that.”
Thus, with this EP, even though it’s only three songs, Straker shows an incredible versatility. On the one hand, he can reinvent a classic with “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”, on the other hand he can write a very wintery and enchanting, sweet track like “Come Walking In the Snow With Me” and then on the same EP literally turn around and show versatility in emotional range with “I’ll be Missing You This Christmas”.
“When you sit down to write a song, and you’ve got an idea, at that very moment you’re in charge of the thing and you start into writing about what you want to write about,” explains Straker of his process, “You can push the boat out into certain waters but there’s a point where the waters will be what they want to be. They can be smooth or wavy or whatever. So you have the lyrics down and you can start in a minor key but then it’s going to take you where it wants in that realm. Or with a major key, or with a different time signature or whatever. So you can push it out there but then it’s going to drag you along.”
It’s always interesting to catch up with a songwriter the caliber and renown of Straker. In the new year, he’s planning on releasing the highly anticipated follow up to his 2017 full length Dirt Road Confessional. If the singles that have thus far been released from that record are any indication of this new outing’s overall quality, things are definitely looking good for Straker in 2021.
*Straker at the piano courtesy of Chris Graham
*Straker Prairies photo courtesy of Ali Lauren